I’ve spotted Matias Faldbakken’s The Waiter popping up several times in the paperback publishing schedules only for it to disappear. I’ve no idea why but I hope it’s because it was selling so well in its neatly proportioned hardback edition that its publishers though better of it. Its publication in the midst of the covid-19 crisis seems entirely appropriate given that many of us used to dining out will have reached a stage when such a thing feels like an unattainable exotic treat. Faldbakken’s novella recounts an eventful few days at an Oslo restaurant through the voice of the eponymous waiter, discombobulated by it all.
The Waiter has been working for over nineteen years at The Hills, an Oslo institution reminiscent of the grand Viennese cafes. Tall and a little stooped, he sees himself as a facilitator alert to diners’ needs, polite and self-effacing yet proud of his work. He’s an observer, more than a little judgemental in his assessment of his customers, and something of a neurotic, thrown into a tizzy when things aren’t just so. When one of his regulars is late, he starts to fret but within the hour all is right with the world when the man he calls the Pig turns up, closely followed by his friend, Blaise. Both seem a tad put out at the non-appearance of their guest. Our waiter has his hands full when his other regulars arrive. Thomas Sellers frequently donates to the art collection that adorns The Hills’ walls and his rowdy behaviour is tolerated as a result. Shortly after Blaise and the Pig depart, a young woman arrives. Beautiful yet strangely nondescript and seemingly at ease with everyone, the Child Lady, as our waiter comes to think of her, will throw a spanner into his carefully maintained works. Over the next few days, the Pig becomes disconcertingly familiar with the Waiter, Thomas Sellers orders his meal backwards and our usually punctilious waiter makes several mistakes, some of them worryingly deliberate. Throughout it all, the Head Chef continues to flambé, the Maitre D’s gnomic utterances become increasingly obscure and even the all-knowing Bar Manager fails to identify the Child Lady.
Diligence and anxiety go hand in hand, I’m convinced of that
Narrated by the increasingly unravelling Waiter, Faldbakken’s novella is a thoroughly entertaining little gem. Beneath his formal, carefully locked down exterior, the Waiter is a seething mass of neuroticism, apparently rather pleased with himself yet riddled with self-doubt. His musings are often erudite, little disquisitions on art and history coupled with waspish observations on diners’ behaviour. The arrival of the Child Lady, who fails to fit any of his mental templates, unnerves him, while his best friend’s entrustment of his nine-year-old daughter sends him scuttling to his phone, constantly checking for messages from her father and indulging in the very behaviour he despises in others: scrolling through trivia. There are some wonderfully slapstick episodes including our Waiter’s collapse in the face of an appalling lapse in sartorial taste while under the influence of far too many espressos. A thoroughly enjoyable piece of entertainment – I loved it.
Black Swan: London 2020 9781784163983 240 pages Paperback